They say that money can’t buy happiness, but it turns out that maybe the right amount can — $75,000, to be exact.
If you’re making $75,000 and above, you’re much less likely than your lower-income peers to experience high levels of worry, sadness and even physical pain, according to new studies.
An oft-cited Princeton study from 2010 found that the magic number was $75,000 as the threshold for security and happiness, and recent studies back it up. But not only are those in the high income bracket less likely to feel depressed, they are also less likely to experience physical pain and “negative experiences.”
A recent Brookings report analyzed Gallup data that asked respondents if they had felt worry, sadness and pain the day before, and asked about their general well-being. It also asked how much money they make.
The group that reported the lowest well-being got by on an income of $2,000 or less per month, which corresponds with the 2013 federal poverty guideline for a family of four. Those making $75,000 and above reported more lighthearted responses and were much more likely to respond positively to the statement that “they were living the best life for themselves.”
"It's the poorest who are two or three times more likely to experience negative emotions," says Ronald Anderson, a former University of Minnesota professor who studies compassion and suffering, and says that negative emotions don’t hit us all the same.
"Depression you expect more among low-income individuals, but you would think that sadness hits us democratically. But poor people are reporting it at three times the rate of higher incomes."
What poverty feels like
Those making do with low incomes are more likely to have physically demanding jobs and less likely to have good access to health care, while also having less to spend on healthy food and medication. But stress and mental anguish shouldn't be discounted, says Anderson, who found that those below the poverty line were twice as likely to report both chronic pain and mental distress.
Poverty exacts a price in nonmaterial ways, too. Instability, lack of opportunity and being treated without respect take their toll. "For a variety of reasons, people's health can affect well-being and vice-versa," says Anderson. In other words, stress can make you sick.
"The elderly are three times more likely to have chronic pain as twenty-year-olds, which is what we would expect," Anderson says. "But mental health issues are flat across age groups — young and old suffer in terms of depression and anxiety." Most types of suffering, he says, including mental distress, are highest among those with low income.
Opportunity and optimism
A study from SUNY Albany followed healthy people who were laid off from a factory closing, and found that losing a job increased the odds of developing a stress-related health problem — like stroke, heart disease, diabetes and mental health issues — rose sharply by 83 percent.
Long-term well-being requires opportunity, not just contentment, according to Brookings reports using the Gallup data. Scholars examined three kinds of well-being, including how people experience their daily lives, but also how satisfied people are with their lives as a whole and their ability to lead a life of purpose.
“In order to fulfill this last and least studied dimension of well-being, people have to have the capacity to think beyond daily struggles and to invest in future opportunities,” wrote the study authors. “This capacity is not shared by all — particularly not by those who face deep poverty, poor health, and/or violent conflict.”
Low income, high price in health
In an NPR and Harvard School of Public Health study released last week, low-income respondents said they were also more likely to say that negative experiences like discrimination affected their well-being; 21 percent of African Americans and 17 percent of Hispanics who said they had experienced discrimination that “harmed their health.”
Research backs up the connection between discrimination and health. Zaneta Thayer, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Denver, found that women who experienced "material deprivation" — going without fresh food, not being able to afford new shoes when theirs had holes, not having adequate heat at home — had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Chronically elevated cortisol levels have bad health effects, including depressed reproductive systems and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Then she conducted a second test for discrimination and found similar health effects. Pregnant women who said they had experienced discrimination in the past two days also tested for higher levels of the stress hormone when Thayer tested their saliva.
Women who said that they had been treated unfairly based on ethnicity, assaulted, verbally harassed or treated rudely at a grocery store, for example, all tested higher for the stress hormone. But that's not all. Months later when Thayer tested their babies, their children tested higher for the stress hormone as well, indicating that stress from discrimination might be passed from mother to child.
That internalizing effects of poverty can raise stress levels over time, and that in turn can affect our physiology, says Thayer. "We respond to the things around us," she says. "They shape us."